International or Local?
Peace Direct

Dear USAID; let’s make sure that “local” really means “local”

The international humanitarian, development and peacebuilding sectors are brimming with initiatives that promise to shift power and resources to local actors in the Global South.

Take #ShiftThePower, for example, which is evolving into a genuine movement or, closer to home, Bond’s own sector catalyst initiative and the RINGO project which are two efforts that are asking difficult questions about the nature of our sector and how it should change. Importantly, activists in the Global South are increasingly claiming space and their voice to talk about these issues, not politely waiting for northern organisations to invite them.

Among the bilateral donors who are seriously thinking about this is USAID, which has been signalling a shift towards greater localisation, describing it as vital to the U.S.’ long-term success for sustainable development. Then, on November 4th, at an event hosted by Georgetown University on “A New Vision for Global Development,” USAID Administrator, Samantha Power, committed at least a quarter of USAID funding to local organisations over the next 4 years. She went on to add the entire international development community needs to interrogate the power dynamics of donor-driven development.

Those of us in the humanitarian, development and peacebuilding sectors have been advocating for this shift for years. As our recent report, “Time to Decolonise Aid” shows, the system we currently operate in is not geared up for a shift towards local leadership. We have turned a blind eye to its failings for too long, preferring to operate within a system where structural racism is so deeply embedded. But now the tide might be turning.

“If we truly want to make USAID inclusive, local voices need to be at the center of everything we do’ remarked Samantha Power at the Georgetown University event. “We’ve got to tap into the knowledge of local communities and their lived experiences. Otherwise, we risk reinforcing the systemic inequities that are already in place.” This is genuinely bold, ground-breaking stuff from the world’s largest bilateral aid donor and it would be churlish not to congratulate USAID on its new vision.

Within the hallowed halls of the big bilateral donors and think tanks, the wind is changing too. In July the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) recommended that its members enable local civil society to play a more prominent role in development cooperation and humanitarian assistance. There is a lot to like in that document, including the recommendation to ‘increase the availability and accessibility of direct, flexible, and predictable support including core and/or programme-based support, to enhance their financial independence, sustainability, and local ownership’. In the United States, USAID’s New Partnership Initiative aims to diversify its partner base, and proposed legislation is in the works in Congress which would simplify access to USAID resources for new and local partners.

Despite these positive signs, some local activists and practitioners are worried. They argue that this is all smoke and mirrors; that we have seen all of this before and it came to nothing. Others are concerned that the definition of ‘local’ will be distorted to encompass international organisations registered in-country in order to maintain the status quo.

They are right to be worried. There have already been successful efforts to water down such definitions and targets, for example during the Grand Bargain agreement in 2016, where a commitment to funding local organisations ‘as directly as possible’ was edited to include funding INGOs. Even the progressive New Partnerships Initiative by USAID appears to include definitions that will ensure large international NGOs operating in-country can maintain access to USAID funding.

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At Peace Direct, our definition of ‘locally-led’ comes from years of talking to our partners about this issue. They, and we, define it as initiatives and organisations ‘owned and led by people in their own context’. Of course, there are ways to argue that this definition is subject to manipulation. Can an international NGO country office which has a Board of Directors composed entirely of local people be regarded as local? For us, and the local activists we talk to, the answer is no.

An international NGO country office is almost always accountable to a head office based somewhere else, usually in the Global North, both in terms of its governance and strategy. The head office influences the strategy, culture, priorities and to what extent the local office can operate independently. Local ownership and leadership are subordinate to a global north strategy or governance, and this often means abrupt country office closures when funding or priorities change. Let’s not forget why international NGOs establish country offices. It is to maintain control over their operations and access to funding that has been devolved to the country-level offices of donors. This disqualifies them from being locally led, no matter how many local people are employed or sit around the Boardroom table.

If local organisations find themselves always competing for funding with international NGOs who are also presenting themselves as local, then what hope is there for the development of a genuinely home-grown civil society, accountable to its communities and able to chart its own path? The role of international NGOs must change, from implementers to sidekicks and advocates, providing solidarity and support when requested and needed, but not before. This will require international NGOs, such as my own organisation, to step back and let others do the talking and doing, and to see this as success. This is why the definitions of what constitutes as ‘local’ matter.